How the University of Virginia Increased Attendance During Black Alumni Weekend

Problem

In 2003, the University of Virginia’s Black Alumni Weekend yielded the lowest number of attendees since the three-day event began 25 years ago; approximately 200 Black alumni participated that year in what has become a biannual event. U.Va. has approximately 8,840 living Black alumni.

Solution

Historically, Black Alumni Weekend had been coordinated by members of U.Va.’s Walter Ridley Scholarship Fund committee (named for the first Black graduate of U.Va.), which provides scholarships for Black students accepted to the university. As the task of planning the weekend became very time consuming for the volunteering committee members, the U.Va. Alumni Association offered its assistance and expertise in reunion planning.

“Working to bring together university groups and organizations with alumni volunteers is what we are about,” says Jason Life, director of reunions and class activities at the U.Va. Alumni Association.

U.Va. Alumni Association officials say a few key things helped reverse declining attendance:

• Frequent correspondence: The office communicated with Black alumni nine months in advance, including a save-the-date card and a detailed brochure outlining the weekend’s events. The office also sent monthly e-newsletters leading up to the weekend.

• Planning kept “within the family”: The weekend was promoted as an event for alumni by alumni. The Alumni Association tapped into Black Greek-letter organizations and other prominent African-American campus organizations, with the help of two Black alumni weekend co-chairs and a larger group of reunion volunteers. In addition, volunteers represented different graduating classes and were therefore able to appeal to Black alumni on a multi-generational level.

• Collaboration across university offices: The Office of the Provost, the Ridley Scholarship Committee, the Office of African-American Affairs, the Office for Diversity and Equity, the Dean of Students, the Office of Admission, student organizations, and the Alumni Association worked together to reach out to alumni.

• Quality of Programming: Officials say the quality of programming improved, with an overall increase in the depth and breadth of planned activities.

Results

In 2005, U.Va. saw attendance during Black Alumni Weekend reach approximately 540. And in the spring of 2007, close to 1,000 Black alumni returned to Charlottesville to participate in the weekend’s events, which included a 30th Anniversary Reception for the Office of African-American Affairs, an All-Star Party hosted by artist/producer Pharrell Williams and a Blessings Brunch with a student gospel group. The greatest increase in attendance occurred in the ’80s classes, by about 15 to 20 percent.

“The success of Black Alumni Weekend begins with the commitment that the university has made to the academic recruitment, retention and graduation of African-American students,” says Life. “Achieving the highest graduation rate of African- American students in the nation (at U.Va.) creates a vibrant alumni community. The U.Va. Alumni Association seeks only to continue that commitment by continuing to engage alumni in the life of the university.”

–Diverse staff



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